Ex-Fairfield lawyer pleads guilty to stealing $824,000
Published 12:40 pm, Saturday, December 31, 2016
A former Fairfield lawyer has pleaded guilty to wire fraud for stealing more than $824,000 from clients, including a terminally-ill woman.
According to court documents, between April 2011 and June 2014, John O’Brien defrauded four clients by using funds from one client to pay off debts owed in connection with his representation of other clients. He also used the stolen money to pay for personal expenses, including private school tuition for one of his children and payments to an ex-wife.
On Friday, O’Brien waived his right to be indicted and pleaded guilty in New Haven federal court to one count of wire fraud. He will be sentenced by Chief U.S. District Judge Janet C. Hall on March 23,when he faces a maximum term of imprisonment of 20 years, a $1.6 million fine $824,747 restitution.
O’Brien was an attorney with an office located in Fairfield. He resigned from the Connecticut bar in June 2015.
Court documents show he stole money from four clients. Here’s how he did it:
In May 2012, O’Brien accepted $458,343.06 into his Interest on Lawyer Trust Account (“IOLTA”) as proceeds of a reverse mortgage taken by a client (“Client 1”) and his client’s wife, both of whom are now deceased. The funds from the reverse mortgage were intended to pay debts that would keep the client’s family business sustainable.
Between June 2012 and February 2014, O’Brien disbursed only $204,000 to the family business. In approximately July 2013, O’Brien received an additional $194,636.89 from bank accounts held in the name of his client and one of his client’s children. The funds were supposed to be distributed to the client’s children. Only $104,008 was distributed.
In approximately April 2014, O’Brien accepted $837,250 into his IOLTA as proceeds of a sale of his client’s real property. Only $470,000 of that amount was disbursed to his client’s heirs. The first check written from O’Brien’s IOLTA account upon receipt of the $837,250 was to a prior unrelated client for a debt owed to that client. In total, O’Brien defrauded Client 1 of $712,221.95.
In May 2011, O’Brien deposited $74,250 from a second client (“Client 2”) into his IOLTA. The money was never disbursed to the client.
In September 2011, O’Brien agreed to represent a terminally ill woman (“Client 3”) for estate planning. Upon this client’s death in January 2013, O’Brien received $137,000 from the estate into his IOLTA. After the deposit, O’Brien paid personal expenses from the IOLTA, including his son’s private school tuition and thousands of dollars to his ex-wife. Only $112,283.20 was distributed to the heirs of O’ O’Brien’s client. Upon a review of this matter by the Connecticut Bar Statewide Grievance Committee, O’Brien produced fraudulent memos allegedly written to the daughter of his client requesting “release” of various amounts. One of the memos included payment to the family business of Client 1 for a $15,000 lawnmower, which was paid for from Client 3’s estate. Client 3 did not purchase a lawnmower from the family business of Client 1.
O’Brien represented a client (“Client 4”) in the purchase of the client’s deceased mother’s home in Westport. In two payments in August 2013 and February 2014, the client transferred to O’Brien approximately $199,332 for purchase of the home, which O’Brien was supposed to pay to the fiduciary of the estate to complete the sale. In approximately April 2014, O’Brien finally paid the fiduciary of the estate to complete the sale.
The check to the fiduciary of Client 4’s mother’s estate was the first check written from the defendant’s IOLTA upon receipt of the $837,250 in Client 1’s real estate sale proceeds. Because of the delay in the defendant’s transfer of payment to the fiduciary of the estate, Client 4 incurred approximately $13,558.38 in storage fees for belongings while the property was unavailable for occupancy by Client 4.
While O’Brien was engaged in the above conduct, he made withdrawals of thousands of dollars in cash from his IOLTA. On several occasions, deposits of the same or similar amounts were made into his personal bank account on the same day that the funds were withdrawn from his IOLTA.